The rolling trails of the Durango Nordic Center have long been frequented by cross-country skiers heading out for a tour or fast-moving skate skiers racing the clock or each other. But this year, there’s a new kid on the block, and that kid rides a bike – a “fat bike.”
“It makes you feel like a 5-year-old,” Daniel Jaber said. Jaber was cranking on his fat bike to take part in the Nordic and Fat Bike Race Series on Saturday, the first of this winter’s three races to promote the center’s opening to the balloon-tire bicycles that are breaking trail all over the country. “It’s just a whole different approach,” he said.
Called “fat bikes” for their oversized rims and tires that can approach 4 inches in width, they can run minimal air pressure, which allows them to be ridden in adverse conditions like snow and sand.
While the bikes themselves are becoming increasingly popular, they have been around for a few decades.
Joey Ernst, owner of event-sponsor Velorution Cycles, said the bikes keep gaining momentum.
“They’ve just started to take the country by storm as more and more people discover them,” he said.
The bikes actually have dual origins in the late 1980s. Alaskan racers needed bikes with larger tires to roll on snow and ice for the Iditabike bike race, cycling’s version of the Iditarod dogsled race that covers hundreds of miles in arctic conditions.
Meanwhile, closer to the equator in the deserts of New Mexico, a tour guide dreamt up wide-tire bicycles for his clients to ride in desert sand on excursions through remote washes and canyons.
As far as bicycles go, it was like reinventing the wheel.
“I really enjoy getting out on fresh tracks and single track, where nobody else has gone,” Ernst said. “Some people think they are only good for groomed trails, but that can’t be any further from the truth.”
Ernst said they truly are vehicles for the back of beyond.
“With the right conditions and the right kind of bike, you can get way out into the backcountry,” he said. “You’re not going to be riding in four feet of snow, but you can get to some pretty hairy places with them.”
Helen Low, manager of the Nordic center, said that she and Nordic race team coach Gary Colliander thought it may be a good idea to open the Nordic trails to fat bikes to get more people out to enjoy a greater variety of activities.
“We’ve had no problems,” she said. “All the bikers have been respectful, and we’ve had no grooves in the trails at all. We’ve not seen any damage to the trails whatsoever.”
Cross-country skier Steve Ilg said at first he was apprehensive about opening the trails to bikes but after trying one for himself, it set his mind at ease.
“I had to get used to it at first,” he said. “But now after experiencing the sport directly and seeing the minimal impact it has on the ski track, I’m all for people getting out and breathing in their sacred winter sports, especially if it’s noninvasive to other disciplines. I’m all for it, so bring it.”
Low did say that with fresh snow or in spring conditions, the center will discourage fat biking, but when snow conditions permit, bikers are encouraged.
“A lot of our skiers are bikers as well, and they want to come up and do both,” she said. “They just love it.”
One local skier and biker said he sees the potential for new kinds of competition, now that the trails are open to both genres. No stranger to the starting line, Durango’s own Olympic mountain biker and two-time single-speed world champion Travis Brown said fat bikes are hard to describe.
“I was a ski racer before, and I think it’s really common that there is a crossover between the two sports,” Brown said. “Everyone who has them says they’re just really fun.”
With a laugh, Low called the bikes just plain funny.
“I’ve got to get out and give it a go,” she said about biking on the trails. “People come back with massive smiles on their faces.”